Catholic University fired a veteran professor this week for having sex with an employee he supervised in 2013.
The university in Northeast Washington said it took action against Stephen J. McKenna after getting a tip in 2017 that he had a relationship with an employee who worked for him.
McKenna, a tenured associate professor of media and communication studies, was chair of his department at the time. He acknowledged Friday to The Washington Post that he had an improper relationship for several months during 2013 with a woman whom he hired as an assistant. The university said the woman was 24 at the time and a graduate student in another department. Shortly after she started the job in February 2013, the university said, the two became “sexually involved.” The woman left the position in October 2013.
The Board of Trustees voted this week to fire McKenna, the university said in a statement Thursday, after a committee of five tenured faculty members who reviewed the case said dismissal was “an appropriate sanction.”
The faculty committee unanimously agreed McKenna violated Catholic University’s policy prohibiting dating and sexual relationships between faculty and employees they supervise, the university said. The committee encouraged school officials “to publicize the matter widely, in the interests of accountability and deterrence.” The policy has been in place since 2008.
The firing was the latest development in a growing effort within academia, spurred by the #MeToo movement, to hold faculty members accountable for sexual misconduct.
McKenna, 54, joined the faculty after earning a doctorate in English from Catholic University in 1996. At times, he has been an in-house critic of the university. In June, Religion News Service quoted McKenna as saying he had felt pressured on faculty searches to do “affirmative action hiring for Catholics.” In April, the Chronicle of Higher Education quoted him expressing doubt about budget cuts and whether the university is in “good academic or financial health.”
On Friday, McKenna told The Post he made a mistake when he began a sexual relationship with his employee. “I used poor judgment,” he said. However, he said he was “pretty bewildered” at the university’s description of the case.
“I think people would look at the dismissal differently if they knew that this relationship lasted for four years after we were no longer co-workers at the university,” he said. McKenna said the two had talked about getting married before their relationship ended about a year ago.
He said the woman “has repeatedly told the university that the relationship was fully mutual and consensual, and furthermore, that she didn’t want any adverse action taken against me, or any harm to come to me and my family.”
University spokeswoman Karna Lozoya said in an email: “There are very good reasons to prohibit relationships between faculty and employees they supervise. The primary reason is that the power differential that exists in the relationship calls into question any alleged consent.”
To guard her privacy, the woman’s identity was not disclosed.
The university said it received an anonymous tip about the relationship in April 2017. Three months later, the woman contacted Catholic University and provided information. As the university investigated the matter, the woman provided “thousands of text messages exchanged between herself and McKenna during the period of her employment,” the university said. Investigators confronted McKenna, the university said, and he admitted to the relationship.
University President John Garvey told McKenna several months ago that the relationship with McKenna’s assistant “violated the standards expected of any faculty member," Catholic University said in its statement. McKenna admitted breaking the rule, the university said, but asked for a lesser punishment.
Catholic has about 6,000 students, and its board includes several bishops, archbishops and cardinals. Founded under a papal charter, it is known as the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States.